While right-wingers are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories than left-wingers, new findings suggest that this effect is weaker in countries with high corruption. Presumably, corrupt environments increase the plausibility of conspiracies so that all citizens are more likely to endorse them, regardless of their politics. The findings were published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
The contention that conspiracy beliefs are more common among right-wingers compared to left-wingers has been supported by a large body of research. Newer research suggests that social factors can also influence conspiracy thinking. For example, there is some evidence that living in a corrupt environment can encourage conspiracy beliefs, perhaps by making secret plots seem more plausible.
Combining two lines of research, study authors Sinan Alper and Roland Imhoff opted to investigate how country-level corruption might influence the link between political orientation and conspiracy mentality. The researchers speculated that this link would be weaker in countries with higher corruption since high corruption would make everyone more likely to endorse conspiracy theories, regardless of their political beliefs.
“Past research generally showed that right-wingers are more likely to fall for conspiracy theories,” explained Alper (@SinanAlper_), an associate professor of social psychology at Yasar University. “We wondered whether this meant that right-wingers were more prone to misinformation or the political context is at play. We decided to look for the role of corruption, because there is higher likelihood of an actual conspiracy in a high corruption context. So we basically investigated how ideology predicted conspiracy beliefs in places where it makes less or more sense to believe in conspiracy theories.”
Alper and Imhoff analyzed data from a previous study by Imhoff, Zimmer and associates (2022). The sample included over 20,000 people across 23 different countries who reported their political orientation and completed a measure of conspiracy mentality. The conspiracy mentality questionnaire assessed their endorsement of items like, ‘I think that there are secret organizations that greatly influence political decisions.’
Respondents also rated their endorsement of a series of country-specific conspiracy theories that had been generated by local researchers. These theories were either right-wing conspiracy beliefs (e.g., ‘There is an ongoing attempt to Islamise and Arabise Britain, thereby weakening Britain’s existing culture and values’) or left-wing conspiracy beliefs (e.g., ‘Oil companies are deliberately suppressing better car technology’).
The researchers next obtained country-level corruption scores from the Corruption Perceptions Index, an annual index that ranks countries based on their perceived levels of public sector corruption. The authors then tested whether country-level corruption moderates the link between political orientation and conspiracy belief.
First, the researchers found that conspiracy mentality increased as political orientation swayed to the right. In both high and low corruption countries, right-wingers had a higher conspiracy mentality than left-wingers. However, this effect was stronger in countries with lower corruption scores and weaker in countries with higher corruption scores.
In line with Alper and Imhoff’s hypothesis, these results suggest that living in an environment with more threat cues increases a person’s wariness toward secret plots, resulting in a higher conspiracy mentality. In these circumstances, conspiracy belief is more plausible, and everyone is more likely to endorse conspiracy theories regardless of their political attitudes. Thus, the link between political belief and conspiracy mentality is weakened.
“In high corruption contexts, the relationship between ideology and conspiracy mindset weakened. In other words, people’s political worldviews were less important in predicting their conspiracy mindset, presumably because it made sense for everyone in high corruption countries to be suspicious of politicians,” Alper explained.
Interestingly, the relationship between partisan-specific conspiracy theories and political belief was stronger in high corruption countries. Left-wingers were more likely to endorse left-wing conspiracy beliefs in high corruption countries, but not in low corruption countries. Right-wingers were more likely to endorse right-wing conspiracy theories in both high and low corruption countries, but the effect was strongest in high corruption countries. This suggests that corrupt environments lead people to be extra cautious of certain conspiracy theories in particular — ones that fit within their political worldview.
“We also looked more specific conspiracy theories and found that both left-wingers and right-wingers were more likely to believe in politically concordant conspiracy theories. This is also possibly because that both sides found politically concordant conspiracy theories more plausible in contexts with high corruption,” Alper said.
A limitation of the study was that most of the data was obtained from European countries, which do not represent the full range of possible levels of corruption. Future research might try to extend these findings on a global scale.
The study, “Suspecting Foul Play When It Is Objectively There: The Association of Political Orientation With General and Partisan Conspiracy Beliefs as a Function of Corruption Levels”, was authored by Sinan Alper and Roland Imhoff.